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The oldest library in the world is opening its doors to the public

After some pretty intense renovations, the oldest library in the world, University of Al Qarawiyyin, in Fez, Morocco, is opening its doors once again.

But while the library was previously only available to students and researchers, this time around it’s far more inclusive.

Smithsonian.com reports that the architect in charge of the restoration project, Canadian-Moroccan Aziza Chaouni, has confirmed that when the refurbished library opens in September it will be debuting a space for public use.

What a turn up for the books!

Dating all the way back to 859, the oldest library in continuous use was in fact opened by a woman – which flies in the face of conventional understandings of the contribution of women to ancient Islam.

Fatima Al-Fihri was the intelligent and curious daughter of a wealthy Tunisian merchant in Fez. Devoted to her faith, Fatima spent her inheritance on a mosque and a centre of learning. She personally oversaw the construction of the mosque and later attended lectures by reputed scholars who travelled to teach at the university.

Over the centuries, Al Qarawiyyin became known for its amazing collection of ancient books and texts, including a ninth century Quran, and the oldest-known collection of accounts of the Prophet Muhammad’s life and writings.

Historians and scholars came from all over the world to study in the library and enjoy the beautiful architecture.

A beautiful morrocan-style courtyard and building

While today the university is in another location in Fez, the mosque and library remain on the traditional spot. However, Al Qarawiyyin was suffering badly due to centuries of humidity and the climate.

Finally, in 2012, the Moroccan Ministry of Culture received a sizeable grant from Kuwait’s Arab Bank and they approached Aziza – yep, she’s a woman too – about the restoration project.

In an interview with TED Ideas, Aziza said the library was an absolute disaster when she arrived.

“When I first visited, I was shocked at the state of the place,” she said. “In rooms containing precious manuscripts dating back to the seventh century, the temperature and moisture were uncontrolled, and there were cracks in the ceiling.”

As well as trying to repair the damage to the buildings, Aziza was tasked with unifying the various extensions that had been added over the years – preserving the historical while looking to the future.

“I didn’t want the building to become an embalmed cadaver!” she said. “There has to be a fine balance between keeping the original spaces, addressing the needs of current users, including students, researchers and visitors, and integrating new sustainable technologies — solar panels, water collection for garden irrigation, and so on.”

Nearly four years later, despite the many challenges and surprises of the project, the restoration is nearly finished, and the library is expected to reopen in September.

It’s set to be a beautiful complex including a reading room, book stacks, a conference room, a restoration laboratory, a rare books collection, a café and a shaded courtyard with mist for hot days.

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About the author

Hannah loves to travel but can’t read a map, so she has plenty of good stories to tell.

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